AN EVENING PRAYER
by Austen Farrell
Before Del opened his eyes, he knew the kid was gone. That panic feeling. That guilt. That screen door slamming in the wind. It had broken into Del’s dream, and as soon as he realized what it was, he gripped the arms of the threadbare recliner and launched himself upward. His feet hit the carpet, and he was down the hall with his head spinning and vision blurry. By the light in the house, it was hard to tell whether it was morning or evening.
He had been dreaming of work, standing in the office and stacking bricks in a supply cabinet. The bricks banging into place were the sound of the screen door. When the noise stopped lining up with the motion, he knew he was dreaming. The sudden-waking adrenaline left him trembling.
The kid was not in either bedroom, not in the bathroom, not under the desk covered in unopened mail. Not back in the living room, as had happened once. Del had sprung up just like this and dashed off only to find the kid sitting in the middle of the floor, looking at him with curiosity. Del continued to check all of the low indoor places, delaying the likely conclusion while girding himself for it.
At last Del let himself go to the kitchen, across the yellow linoleum that must have been cheerful once. And there the kid was, out through the window, in the tree. Sitting on a low limb with his t-shirted back to the house, looking out across the many fenced-off yards. He didn’t climb, didn’t wiggle around on the branch. He kept his hands fixed on either side. This kind of thing drew mistrustful eyes on the playground, but now it eased Del’s panic. The kid was creative and strange and prone to long, silent bouts of thought. He could be unnaturally still.
Del braced himself for a moment over the sink like a runner catching his breath. Late day sunlight shone on the scuffed basin. The dishtowel on the hook there needed to be washed. He took one deep breath and went out, careful not to let the door creak or the latch click.
The tree stood at the other end of the ranch duplex. By all written and verbal accounts, it was a shared yard. But the neighbor, Mr. Gorham, was easily triggered when others crossed lines that only he could see. He had berated Del for imperceptible infractions for the entire eight months they’d been living there. Aside from telling Del to get better control of his kid, Mr. Gorham’s chief activities seemed to be working late and fussing with his combover. He would be home soon.
The branches were almost bare but for flickering yellow leaves at the ends, clinging in twos and threes against a shifting dark mass above. The sun sat in a sliver of clear sky between the earth and the clouds, its rays bouncing off of the gray ceiling to give the world an ominous golden glow.
At the base of the tree, Del angled his head up to look at the boy’s back, watched him breathing for a moment.
“I know you’re there,” the kid said. His sneakers hung clean and still above Del’s head.
Congested from sleep, Del croaked, “Sam.”
The kid tensed, showing the slightest contraction in his shoulders, and without looking back or down he slowly reached at a higher branch and prepared to climb.
Del cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. Come down.”
Sam, now sufficiently out of reach, turned to face him. “You were asleep.”
Del opened his mouth but offered no defense.
“You got home and fell asleep.” And he started to maneuver away again, tucking one leg and then unfolding it on the other side of the branch with the clunky grace of a small body.
“I’m sorry. Just come down.” Del raised his hand, open to hold. “Look, I’m ready,” he said. “It wasn’t that long. Right? How long was it?”
“Long.” Sam floated up another tier.
“Well, I’m ready now. It’s okay. I guess I was more tired than I thought. After work I just—I’m just so tired. But I’ve rested, and I’m ready.” Del looked around as if searching for a way to entice the kid back to earth. “We can just hang out now. There’s nothing else we have to do tonight. Come on, we’ll get whatever you want for dinner.”
Sam glanced over his shoulder. “Anything?”
The kid climbed again, settling on a branch that looked just thick enough for a squirrel. The whole treetop at that level swayed with the wind. “You don’t want to go anywhere.”
Del couldn’t argue. “I’ll make something.” He had to shout through the wind and the distance now, and it exposed the frustration in his voice.
“You always make the same things.”
“Does that matter?” Del checked himself. “Together we can figure out something new. But I can’t do it without you, so come down, or I’ll starve. You might be able to get by for a couple days on what’s left of these leaves, but I won’t make it that long.”
Sam drifted to a thicker tier of the tree. He turned away again, then fell backward and swung upside down by his knees. “I am hungry.”
Del forced a smile as he squinted to try to read Sam’s expression. In one instant of focus, he caught the kid grimacing.
“What’s the matter?”
“You look like a skeleton,” Sam said.
Del instantly looked away and rubbed his eyes hard. They were ringed in blue-black, set deep in a pallid face, the product of strained sleep, little daylight, and less exercise. Sam hadn’t let on that he’d noticed until now.
“I’m sorry,” Del said. “I don’t know what to do about that. But come on, let’s get inside.”
The kid’s swinging momentum ceased and he hung still and silent, arms folded, an inscrutable little genie.
The sun sat equidistant between the earth and the clouds. You could flip the world upside down just then and they’d be in opposite positions. Del would be at the top of the tree, and he wouldn’t come down, either.
The wind would not stop.
“Mr. Gorham’s going to be home soon,” Del said casually.
“He’s too old to climb a tree,” said Sam.
“He’s going to yell,” said Del.
“Only at you,” said Sam.
Del shoved his frustration down, like punching dirty laundry into a full hamper. “It’s a pretty nice house in there, you know. Certainly more comfortable than a tree. Warm enough for your short sleeves, too. If you want, we can drag some branches in there, a few twigs and string. Weave a little nest. I mean, that’s no problem with me. Only I wouldn’t have bought that couch if I’d known you prefer this kind of thing.”
Sam righted himself and stood on a firm branch, stretching tall and grasping a higher one, then wavering between them. Extended that way from fingertips to toes, he said, “You’re only funny when you want me to come back in the house.”
“No, I’m serious. Let’s gather some twigs. You pick your favorites while you’re up there. I’ll start weaving inside.”
“Go ahead,” Sam said, “I can watch that from here.” He pointed at the window, then let his feet slip off of their branch and he dangled there by one hand, twisting gently.
Del stepped back in defeat. He hadn’t won an argument with Sam in months, since the day of that first five a.m. alarm. Not since driving in the dark and trying to explain forced overtime. Coming home too ragged to convey how the managers of the smallest chunk of a conglomerate leaned on the staff to log more unit numbers, nakedly admitting that longer spreadsheets might save their own jobs while offering no such hope for the data entry crew. By the end of the first week, Del had a hard time holding sentences together. In the mornings, they were too groggy to talk. In the evenings, Del returned too tired to find any fun in the day and helplessly concerned with squaring away the things that needed to be done before getting to bed. They lost the whole summer that way. Del would come to at his desk and hate himself for forgetting to think about Sam. And then even that didn’t bother Del anymore. It got easier to put Sam away. When that happened, he started these stubborn disappearances. His tantrums even got quieter. Rather than responding by seeking attention, he seemed content to drift himself away.
“You’re ignoring me now,” Sam said, climbing again.
“No! I was just thinking. Waiting for you.”
“You forgot why you were out here,” Sam said, stretching for a dangerously thin limb. He stayed close to the core of the tree, but up there, with his weight, it all swayed with each gust. “Just go in!” He had to shout now. “I’m not coming down.”
Del reached up for a branch. “No. Come on now. I’m cold. We’ll cook. Put on whatever music you want. We won’t even do the dishes tonight.”
“You don’t like my music now.”
“I do. I just don’t—I just don’t react like I used to. And I think you’re too old for it now.”
Sam looked away. Treetop still shaking. He extended one arm and one leg out into the air.
“Aren’t you cold?” Del said this not because the kid shivered, but because he looked so very insubstantial.
“I was cold inside, too.”
“We’ll turn the heat up!” Del said. “I’ll make it so warm you can put shorts on.”
“We can’t afford that.”
“Whatever. Whatever it takes to get you to come down.”
Sam was performing an impossible feat of balance.
“Call some friends!” Del yelled. “Maybe get Gus over for videogames.”
“No one will come over. They’re all busy.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They’re all always busy.”
“It’s almost the weekend,” Del responded, grasping. “We can make some plans. Friday night! Friday night have everybody over.”
“I know they’re too busy. And you won’t do any of what you say.”
Sam let go. For an instant he billowed outward, like a sheet on the line. Then he came to rest, three feet above the nearest branch. When he righted himself, standing on the air, the look he gave Del showed not concern but admonition.
With wide eyes, Del said, “Don’t go. Don’t go.” He grabbed the trunk with both hands, hung his head and rattled off, “I will turn it up. I will call your friends. I will make plans for the weekend. I will get milkshakes, tacos, and fries. We’ll go to the store for whatever you want, call whoever you want. We will stay up late making up funny stories and playing videogames, sleep in the living room, go get breakfast together in the morning. We will make fun of people on TV. We will learn to play a new song…” With his face to the ground, Del continued to mutter promises until his voice became a whisper.
When next Sam spoke his voice was closer. “Can we do that tomorrow, too?”
Del didn’t look up. “Yes.”
“No,” Sam said flatly. “You don’t have time.”
“I know,” Del admitted. “But I am working on a way to find more time, to get back to normal. I am working on a way to get there.”
Sam was close enough to not have to raise his voice. “How long will it take?”
“What will it be like when we get there?”
“I don’t know,” Del said. He turned and leaned his back against the tree, facing their little house. By the time they ate and got cleaned up—he couldn’t really let himself abandon the dishes—they wouldn’t have time for any of it, even to think of how to make time for it later. And tomorrow he would regret using extra heat, and he would certainly regret staying up late. He stared into the kitchen window.
The branch immediately above Del shook. A finger tapped him on top of the head. He raised his eyes to see Sam’s hand extended downward. Del reached up and took it. And there they stayed under the swirling clouds, past sunset.
Austen Farrell is a writer and editor working in higher ed., where he does some varying combination of feature, copy, and ghostwriting. He is an advisory committee member of Write Rhode Island and an associate editor for Bryant Literary Review. He has an MA in classics, with a focus on ritual sacrifice in Greek comedy. His fiction has also appeared in A-Minor Magazine. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two hilarious animals.
Image credit: Pixabay
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